Spoiler Warning: The entire first season of Mindhunter is discussed below.
For TV critics, Mindhunter entered the world surrounded by hesitation. There has been plenty written about the glorification of serial killers on television, especially of late, but this was compounded by the more immediate fact that Netflix did almost no marketing for the series. It wasn’t released for review except to a handful of critics, and even then just the first two episodes. When a network hesitates to release more than one or two episodes, it’s usually a sign that they aren’t confident in the show, or there’s a major twist that they are protecting. In the case of Mindhunter, neither one seemed to be true. The show’s premiere was stilted and a little hinky, but after that it was engrossing. There weren’t any twists to spoil, but the soft launch created an unnecessary shroud around what is now quietly one of the best series of the year.
One of the most fascinating things about Mindhunter (created by Jonathan Penhall but essentially taken over by David Fincher) is how it is a procedural, yet also eschews the typical beats of a procedural. There has been so much snobbery in this Second Golden Age of Television when it comes to procedural setups versus novelistic storytelling, and yet, there shouldn’t be (especially since so many series butcher attempts at the latter). An ace procedural is one of TV’s greatest delights, and the most effective series are ones that successfully incorporate those Story of the Week narratives while weaving them into larger arcs.
Mindhunter tells its story on three levels: the killer we see in the cold open snippets, who is never addressed directly and never resolved; the more-or-less Crimes of the Week, where Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and the progressive but still old-school Bill Tench (a fantastic Holt McCallany) stumble into investigations while doing Road School for the FBI; and finally, the overall story about the expansion of behavioral study at Quantico regarding criminality, and the research into the newly-coined “serial killers.”
Mindhunter is based on the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas, who is the inspiration for Holden. Douglas has also been the model for a number of pop culture detectives, including Thomas Harris’ John Crawford, Will Graham of Hannibal, and FBI profilers on Criminal Minds. Each of these iterations of Douglas’ persona focus on a man driven to find the motivation and habituation behind some of our country’s most gruesome murders in order to better understand how to catch other killers, or possibly even prevent these kinds of crimes from happening. That is, at least, the lofty goal that Holden aspires to when we first meet him, as someone whose life is work and who, for much of this first season, believes his work doesn’t affect his life.
It’s the perfect background for a series that also knows it needs to deliver the goods episodically as well. The cases that Bill and Holden participate in helped bring killers to justice, which keeps the pace of the series taught and the narrative moving. They also play into the bigger behavioral project, as the Road School is left behind; but the Road School was also an important part of Bill and Holden getting access to these heinous, small-town crimes, and often those who committed them. It was also a necessary check on Holden’s ego, as he – from the very start – revealed a tendency to show off his education, and to look down on those he felt were not operating to his standards.
The series also shows us Holden’s interest and growing obsession with famous killers very early on. His meetings with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton, who further illustrates the brilliance of the show’s casting) and others showed not only his deepening interest in the darkness these men possessed, but in his own arrogance at being able to draw it out and manipulate them. The conversations between Holden and these men, and between Holden and Bill about them and their crimes, were often disarmingly casual, but Bill’s essential function was as a moral compass and a tether for Holden. The relationship between the two was particularly fascinating throughout this season because of how difficult it is to categorize. They were more than coworkers, but something less than friends, and yet, there was a familial shade in their care for one another. There was respect, but also, resistance. But that push and pull was necessary — Holden had to push Bill into the future, and Bill had to hold him back from taking things too far. In the end, with Bill alienated and Holden left to his own devices, he did take things too far.
When it came to the particulars of the crimes committed by these real killers (one of the best and worst things about the show), Mindhunter has been restrained in its use of graphic violence, something another kind of show would have had a field day with. And yet it was haunting in the way that it used language and suggestion to create the picture for us. Ed Kemper’s acts in particular, explored with such detail, give one’s imagination a nightmarish playground on which to consider his crimes. There is far more power in what was not shown to us than what was, as discussing motivation, behavioral theory, and considering the man (always the man) behind the crime remained the focus. As the DA from Georgia says, until you can fully realize the pain and horror that the victims went through, you cannot fully process what these men are capable of. Yet Holden was never interested in the victims — he humanized and fully realized the assailants. He wanted to know who these men were to stop other men like them. The victims were inconsequential, part of a cold calculation in uncovering a “deviant” murderer. But that distance is also necessary, for him and for us. The show also possesses a heart and humor to it that are essential to not becoming so mired in darkness that we, like Holden, become overwhelmed.